Joe Linker: Milk

GERMANY. 1960. "Carnival on skis".M-GE-SKI-001

Herbert List, Germany, 1960, “Carnival on skis”. Source:

A milkman delivered milk bottles to the house a couple of days a week, came into the yard through the side gate, white uniform, and cap so light and delicately placed we wondered how it stayed put, picked up the empties and left the fresh bottles of thick cadmium white milk on the back porch. We could hear the milkman coming in the early morning, his square truck, the door always open, pulling up to the side of the house, under the three carob trees, coming through the back gate, the milk bottles jostling in his wire milk bottle carrier.

She fell. As light as she was, she fell. Seemed impossible. As light as a thin frost over the grass, a white frost covering the brown grass. And falling, her light ascended, filling the air like a scudded firework, filling the air and falling, shucking across the grass, her old age finally falling like a ball of milk boiling into foam. The milk spilt white and wet and thick and soaked into a red tablecloth.

After some time, I don’t remember how long, but I think a short time, maybe a few months, or less, the milk deliveries stopped. The milkman stopped coming. We hadn’t paid the milk bill, so they cut off the milk bottle deliveries. Weekly, the milkman had left the bill rolled up like a manuscript held in place by one of the milk bottles. Now, we got no new milk, but the bill for the old milk porch-drops kept coming. It was one of those bills they just had to ignore. They were buying our milk at the grocery store now, and the cost of milk would have doubled had they tried to pay off the milkman bill. They just didn’t have the dough. I don’t know how the idea of milk delivery ever got sold. Door to door, I guess, or some advertisement. Or was it an idea they had brought with them cross country? They were born into homes with iceboxes and could remember ice block and milk can deliveries from horse-drawn wagons. They remembered cream. They did not remember credit accounts, and maybe like easy promotions requiring little to start, once the bill came, the milk seemed sour.

One evening, a stranger knocked on the door, ten kids in the family, and my misfortune to open. He was holding some folded papers up against his chest in such a way he could pass them over with little stress, quickly like an upper-cut or a jab. I still remember his tie, a sign this was someone of some importance. I had never seen my father wear a tie. “Is your father and mother home?” I went to get Dad and said, “He wants you too, Mom,” but Dad was calling the guy at the door, “You son of a bitch!” I apparently had mistaken a tie and serious demeanor for something my father had not yet taught me. But he was to teach me this evening. The guy in the tie had said my father’s name, as if a question, and Dad let the papers drop to the porch, and as I was trying to get Mom’s attention, Dad yells at me to leave your goddamn mother out of this.

Some poets are like cats who must awake in the middle of the night and remember such incidents, small as they are in time’s total dance, in the five act play that is the satire of humanity, depending on your point of view, in global competition for who’s got it worse, and check out what’s it like on the outside. I am one of these. And so not only awake, but get out of bed, and at the window look out on the winter snow, the ice, the air close and tight. But through the glass is not enough. I’m bound to go out into the open night. The poor spouse stirs, as if to ask if there’s some mistake, like Frost’s horse by woods, but here the only other sound’s the soft stirring of the children’s sleep. I switch on the night light to find my boots, and the reflection destroys the view of the salsa garden in snow. In the window, I see a wrinkled man with a day old beard, a cat of the old poet kind, not hard to find, groused grey hair grizzled over storm surf face. And this night I decide, rather than go out into the night garden, I will sit at the computer I’ve left on, its tempting blue glow a ghostly muse blue, a midnight blue, a kind of blue one yearns for without ever even having seen the sea, the blue of the rosary and of ocean waves and of a café terrace at night, the blue of nightgowns and low ceilings and teacups, the blue of a carafe of wine.

In the morning, of course, things are different, the garden looks cold and effete, not at all inviting. I stand on the grate to warm my feet, a pair of thin blue socks in my hand, and blue is a cold cruel color. I commute to work and forget the night. But days later, I return to find this writing in a cluster of papers piled up like mulch on my desk.

Old times. Just like your old times, a burnt tongue, a torn ear, the bloated bellies of children, their ribs floating, water rising all around but thirsty – and never enough fire. Here comes everybody. Not a shirt on their back. Not a penny to their name. Not a home for their soldier. War, famine, flood. Can’t seem to get enough fire to keep warm. Refugees, immigrants, soldiers, old people carrying bundles, a child with the look of a trashed doll, an arm missing. Lost, alone, shattered. Come and go, homeless. Missing in passive, missing loved ones. Round and round we go, bicycle bell and bus exhaust, from first frost to last mulch, marching with the rhinos. Oh, hell, hell no, we won’t go. We went. We went. Now we want to tell about it, about our times, just like old times. Some of us are still here, mostly just listening now, seldom speaking, silent, unless we see a small hand reaching into the fire, then we softly hiss, “No,” as our parents and theirs taught us and them. There will be plenty of time, young ones, still to walk the coals.

The old folks seldom speak. They appear listening across a foggy valley, scaling some mass that has no weight. One murmurs no, no, as if someone were in danger, and she pulls her hand away, and draws her feet inward, away from the cold duns, and she dreams of cool milk bottles on the back porch in the South Bay, where it never snows, hears the hands of the milkman gently placing the bottles with an identifiable jingle on the porch in the shade of a carob tree, a milk white morning rising over a tranquil blue sea. The gate closes. The milk truck drives off. The milk waits on the porch. She gets out of bed, her nightgown as thin as a napkin. In the kitchen, she fills the pan with water for coffee, places the pan on the stove, lights the gas burner with a match. She opens the back door, bends over, picks up the milk basket and carries it inside. She wads the milk bill into a ball she stuffs into the trash bag before he can come in and see it. He gets up and dresses for work, same clothes he wore yesterday and the day before that. She pours him a cup of coffee and he adds some milk and says, “I love a cup of coffee with fresh milk in the morning.” She sits with him while he drinks his coffee, but they don’t say much. She makes his lunch, a baloney sandwich with a shot of bright yellow mustard on white bread as soft as froth, and puts it in a brown paper bag on the end of the counter, by the back door, where he won’t forget. There is no breakfast, just the coffee and milk. He does not drink a second cup. He has to drive out to the valley. He’ll install the toilets today, white porcelain.